David Cameron’s call to ‘Scrap the ECHR and replace it with a British Bill of Rights’ is perhaps the most screaming example of why so many British people were uncomfortable having a man run the country whose only serious professional background is in public relations. It is a hallow policy, a piece of limp symbolic pandering, but worse, it is devastatingly irresponsible. Not just because it could involve the removal of rights that took us several centuries to get established in law, but also because, as Michael Heseltine says, it somewhat undermines our position when we try to foster human rights agreements around the world, or speak of the international rule of law, if we as a nation have chosen to opt out of the only credible human rights agreement with the power to hold our own government to account.
The Conservatives say they want less emphasis on the rights of criminals and more emphasis on the rights of victims. Tory MP Phillip Hollobone said his constituents are “fed up to the back teeth with human rights legislation and the way it is being used to promote the rights of bad people, over the rights of good people.” But there is no such thing as the ‘rights of bad people’ and the ‘rights of good people,’ just as there is no such thing as ‘a criminal’s rights.’ The same rights apply to us all. Every right afforded to a criminal (or, and this is usually the crux of the issue, someone accused of being a criminal) is afforded to me, you, the postman and the Queen as well. There is no such thing as promoting one person’s human rights over another person’s human rights. To protect Nick Griffin and Abu Hamza’s human rights is to protect my own human rights: you can’t remove a criminal’s right not to be tortured without removing your own right not to be tortured. You can’t remove the right to burn a Quran without removing the right to burn the Pope in effigy when he visits. You can’t remove Binyam Mohammed’s right to a free and fair trial without removing your son, daughter, or mother’s right to a free and fair trial. That is the point of human rights. They belong to us all.
Prisoner voting, the latest big issue to drag up this argument about political sovereignty, whatever you may think about it (and I personally happen to have no problem with prisoners voting) is not a reason to abandon the ECHR. The ECHR is the closest thing we Europeans have to an equivalent of the American Constitution. Would American conservatives abandon their Constitution because it guarantees, say, Muslims the right to build a Mosque at Ground Zero, or black people as well as white people the right to bear arms, or socialists the right to free association? No: they argue about the interpretation of the document, but don’t call for the complete abolition of it. They understand that it protects everybody.
But – perhaps because we are still childishly determined to believe we’re a powerful force in the world without being part of Europe – a call for abolition is what seems to happen in this country. Assuming David Cameron is actually being serious when he says the thought of prisoners voting “makes him feel sick” (and if he is, I wonder how he feels about disabled people in care homes having their mobility allowance cut? It’s a wonder such a delicate flower can get through the day in such a job without vomiting copiously whenever IDS suggests a new cut to hit the most vulnerable in society, isn’t it?), it’s still hardly grounds for rejecting the entire ECHR or the Human Rights Act.
It is perfectly arguable, within the framework of the legal Articles set out in the document, that the ECHR doesn’t, in itself, compel us to give prisoners the vote, and that to argue otherwise is simply a misinterpretation of the Articles. For one thing, not every other European country allows prisoners to vote. Some simply don’t allow ‘serious’ offenders to vote (Italy, Greece, and Poland, for example), while some cunningly hopscotch around the rule by technically making it legal for prisoners to vote, but not actually making any provision for them to, say, get to a polling station or use a postal vote (Cyprus and Slovakia for example). To say nothing of the fact that the ECHR’s President, Jean-Paul Costa, actually dissented on the court’s verdict, although as the President he officially backs the final decision, in his professional capacity.
Either way, waving a Union Jack defiantly in the faces of anyone calling for prisoners to vote is more of a Jim Hacker ‘Euro Sausage’ moment than a serious policy initiative. By taking a stand on something that needn’t actually happen in the first place, David Cameron gets to look like he’s sticking two fingers up to Europe, whilst actually bending over for his own backbenchers, the tabloid press, and – funnily enough – the Lib Dems too, all at once.
Because, even though ideologically the Lib Dems are, of course, against introducing a British Bill of Rights in place of the ECHR, the opportunity to defend the ECHR from Tory destruction is a gift from God for the increasingly maligned Nick Clegg. By ensuring Helena Kennedy, Philippe Sands, and Lord Lester on the Bill of Rights Commission, it is very unlikely that any Bill of Rights drawn up will have any power to challenge the ECHR whatsoever. And the Tories are only too happy to let Clegg have the ‘credit’ for obstructing the concept of a British Bill of Rights – something they would realistically have found pretty impractical to implement had they actually been expected to do so.
David Cameron must be aware of the perceived unpopularity of the ECHR amongst what we patronisingly call ‘ordinary’ British people. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, badly needs to hang on to the support of the more left-wing Lib Dem voters. It’s a very nifty good-cop-bad-cop arrangement, from which they will both undoubtedly benefit rather nicely within their own electoral demographic.
But which position on human rights, and sovereignty, will ultimately prove itself to be most in touch with the wider British public? Perhaps we, the British public, should be asking ourselves this: what kind of neo-liberal democracy do we actually want to be? Polls, papers, and the man in the street all seem to say we want to be Cameron’s Britain. The instant throwaway junk-rage of the (often, ironically, foreign-owned… naming no names) tabloid press might celebrate Cameron’s temptation to follow the loudest crowd. But in the long-term, just as the creation of the Welfare State immortalised Beveridge, so saving the ECHR could, on a lesser scale, be just enough to keep Nick Clegg in history’s good books. And more than that: a liberal optimist might even dare to hope that even now, if we look around Britain and actually consider each other as human beings, not statistics; if we look for ourselves what Conservative Britain is already beginning to look like, perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll find we’re not all as ready to toss away the only safeguards we have against our own government as David Cameron believes we are.